Poem of the week: Morfudd Like the Sun by Dafydd ap Gwilym

This radiant verse by the 14th-century Welsh bard translated by M Wynn Thomas reveals a poetic innovator

Morfudd Like the Sun

I wait for a softly spoken girl,
Sheen of white snow on a pebbly field,
A radiant girl, God knows,
Brighter than spume of foam,
Aglitter with colour like the echoing breast of a wave.
Ablaze with light, yet modest,
She knows how to woo a love song from my lips …

From far east to west, across the vastness of earth
The sun moves with the dazzle of a girl
Beautifully dressed in the body of day.
It shepherds the sky from horizon to horizon …
Where God’s ball, the sun, goes
Is anyone’s guess.
No hand can touch it,
Or grasp so much as its fringe.
But come day, aloft it soars anew,
Distantly setting world’s firmament alight.

Very similar – and cause of my grief -
Is Morfudd’s setting out of my sight.

I first discovered the poetry of the 14th-century Welsh bard Dafydd ap Gwilym when, planning a poem about my roof-nesting herring-gull family, I cast around the internet for company and ideas. I was thrilled by the radiance of the poem I discovered, Yr Wylan: Gwilym’s seagull soars, alive and shining, even in English translation.

This week’s choice is an abridged version of another great Dafydd ap Gwilym poem, Morfudd Like the Sun (Morfudd fel yr Haul). With this commentary by the scholar, translator and editor, M Wynn Thomas, the Morfudd sampling would be an ideal introduction for readers new to Gwilym’s work.

It is the first poem in a delightful new 12-poem collection, A Map of Love, which Wynn Thomas has edited for the University of Wales Press. The bilingual collection hops across the centuries from Gwilym to the present, and includes stylish linocuts by the artist, Ruth Jên Evans. It would make a good Valentine’s Day gift, and, if you’re Welsh, you’d only be a little late to offer the collection to a loved one in honour of St Dwynwen, the patron saint of love, whose day was celebrated on 25 January.

Gwilym glorifies Morfudd, said to be a rich merchant’s wife from Aberystwyth, as a troubadour might glorify his lady, but from closer quarters. For all her bejewelled brightness, she is no static icon, rather a force of nature. When we first see her, it seems she is naked, “a sheen of snow on a pebbly field”. Then she is transformed into a breaking wave, with its surface foam and unfurling “breast” of colour, its play of sunlight and echo. There’s no need for any superlative claim that Morfudd is more beautiful than these natural phenomena. In Gwilym’s poem, human beauty never eclipses nature, but is equal in the whole sacred constellation.

The English translation now cuts to the most significant Morfudd image in the poem. At first, the girl/sun metaphor is reversed and it’s the sun that moves “with the dazzle of a girl”. The image isn’t decorative: “beautifully dressed in the body of the day” suggests daylight is the sun’s very skin, no mere costume. Benign and magnificent, the girl-sun “shepherds the sky from horizon to horizon”. It’s a refreshing change from Phoebus’s chariot, and boldly revises the masculine Christian representation of pastoral tenderness.

Now other metaphorical shapes appear. The sun is “God’s ball”: it also has a mysterious, special “fringe”. The metaphors are given more space and separation in the original, but there’s something to be said for the clustering in the shortened version. The sun after all is no simple object. No one can hold it steady. It can change shape radically as the eye perceives it at different times of day and through various kinds of weather.

Morfudd resembles the sun not only in her radiance but because, as a married woman, she disappears at night from her lover’s sky. The present participle, “setting” is quietly effective. Morfudd sets “world’s firmament alight”, and she also simply “sets”.

Very similar – and cause of my grief -
Is Morfudd’s setting out of my sight.

Again, Gwilym avoids the self-centred lyric rhetoric of an Elizabethan sonneteer or Romantic love poet. Gwilym’s voice always sound natural, even at its most elevated. Here, the diction is flatter, plainer. Even temporary absence is a state of dull, starless loss.

Gwilym was a poetic innovator, and a miraculous virtuoso in the ode-like form, cywydd. Even a skimming of the original Morfudd fel yr Haul reveals some of the complexity: see, for instance, the first 14 lines, all starting with a word beginning with the letter G. You can read the entire poem and another English translation on the Dafydd ap Gwilym website, and listen to Ioan Gruffudd’s magnificent recitation in Middle Welsh and English on SoundCloud.

• This article was amended on 8 February 2023. An earlier version incorrectly described Gwilym as “forgotten” and misspelt “Gwilym” and “cywydd”.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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